The Australia you thought you knew has been lost. Down under, the land where women glow and men thunder, is simply a line in a song. A nation once famed for its easy-going egalitarianism is now sprinting towards segregation and authoritarianism. A new feudal class has emerged and asserted dominance over Australian society and almost every check and balance designed to hold Australia’s democracy together has been bulldozed. The behavior of the Chinese Communist authorities toward pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, condemned by governments across Australia, was replicated on the streets of Melbourne last week. At the time of writing, the cities of Sydney and Melbourne are under stricter curfews than either Kabul or Pyongyang.
Australia became a nation in 1901 but the genesis of Australian democracy occurred decades before on the goldfields of Victoria, in what became known as the Eureka Rebellion. The gold rush of the 1800s was a source of economic upheaval in the fledgling colonies. An influx of wealth into the hands of the citizenry left authorities without the resources to maintain order. The lure of easy pickings on the goldfields left cities and towns so devoid of manual laborers that the governor of Victoria was forced to free prisoners from his own jails, on the understanding that they would serve as special constables in the police force.
To slow the growing imbalance between the citizens and the crown, a series of punitive measures were implemented to slow the amount of wealth being amassed in private hands. Exorbitantly priced mining licenses amounting to several months’ worth of wages afforded miners the right to just eight square feet of diggings. Along with a detachment of English soldiers, thousands of troopers—many former criminals—were sent to the goldfields to ensure compliance. The prospect of preemptive taxation via mining licenses, taxation entirely without representation (only significant land-holders were able to vote at the time), and the heavy-handed enforcement tactics of the colonial authorities led to resentment among the miners.
In late 1854 Peter Lalor, an articulate Irishman, gathered a group of “diggers” together near Ballarat. A crude stockade was assembled and the men began drilling with whatever weapons were at hand. Flying proudly above the Eureka Stockade was a new flag, representing the blue sky of possibility and the stars of Crux—the Southern Cross—geometrically arranged to symbolize the coming together of people from all corners of the globe: Australian by choice, not circumstance.
Heavily outnumbering the rebels, a well-drilled English regiment easily routed the group, which was armed predominantly with pistols and mining implements. The insurrection was crushed in minutes and many leaders swiftly captured. Lalor himself lost an arm in the battle but was secreted away before he could be captured. He was subsequently outlawed and a reward offered for his capture.
Decisive as it was, the victory turned pyrrhic for Victorian authorities. The spirit of Eureka had captured the imagination of a young nation eager for self-rule. Juries found each rebel leader innocent of sedition charges in quick succession, and the defendants, now free men, were carried out to the jubilant crowd. Peter Lalor went on to be the only outlaw elected to an Australian parliament and a suburb of Melbourne was ultimately named in his honor.
The Swearing of Allegiance to the Southern Cross (Eureka Flag) at Bakery Hill, 1854. By Charles Doudiet (Wikimedia Commons)
Australia’s approach to governance through consensus rather than force came to an end after 166 years, eight months and nineteen days. On Saturday the 21st of August 2021, Australian security forces once again took up arms against political protesters.
Australia’s slide into authoritarianism has surprised many, not only the ferocity and speed with which it has been implemented, but also how it has been embraced by large parts of the population. The gun-control agenda started by supposedly conservative Prime Minister John Howard in 1996 has grown to the point where even owning a modest hunting rifle is out of legal reach for the majority of Australians, systematically disarming the population over 25 years. Hard won freedoms that were clawed back from the tyrants of the past have been handed to the tyrants of the future without a whimper.
Legislative attacks against freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly have accelerated to the point where the mere act of organizing a protest is an offense that can attract a prison sentence comparable to burglary. The New South Wales police force has recently instructed its members to avoid responding to all but emergency distress calls in favor of prosecuting the enforcement of restrictions. News reports boast of the millions of dollars in fines that various state governments are levying against people for sitting on park benches, attempting to open their businesses, or fomenting anti-government sentiment online. Yours truly was fined over $1,000 for being more than six miles from my home without a “reasonable excuse.”
In South Australia, those confined to quarters under a health directive must display a large sign detailing their private medical status in their yard. In order to conduct a warrantless search of a property, police need only invoke emergency protocols under the most spurious of circumstances. Police across the country have been assured that they will not be held responsible for any wrongful prosecutions under the same health directives.
The enactment of sweeping emergency powers—based on initial projections of deaths, later revealed to be significantly overestimated—has provided state governments with the ability to perform an end run around parliamentary procedure. Premiers have ceded executive power to unelected and unaccountable public health bureaucrats. The rules that Australian citizens are bound to follow change on a weekly, even daily, basis. Policy is formed not through reasoned debate, but through bureaucratic thought bubbles that are enacted as law courtesy of self-given “emergency powers”. The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, recently ordered Victorians to wear masks while consuming alcohol out of doors without a glimmer of irony. Political opposition is negligible, as a result of changes to electoral law aimed at disenfranchising all but the major established parties.
The economic stratification of society as a result of the punitive measures introduced by governments across the country is reaching a point where the political stability of Australia will be threatened. Over 30 percent of the population are civil servants of some description. The duplication of public services across three levels of government has resulted in a bloated political class. Those who designed our lockdown rules did so with a focus on their own comfort. Highly paid bureaucrats, whose work can easily be completed from their laptops, luxuriate in their capacious homes, granting themselves pay-raises and organizing jazz quartets to soothe their nerves on the few occasions they are required to attend their places of employment.
The reality faced by those whose work involves stacking supermarket shelves, driving trucks, or making coffee involves running a gauntlet of police officers and soldiers demanding evidence of their right to go about their lawful activities. The owners of small businesses, especially those who rely on foot traffic or dine-in customers, are declaring bankruptcy at a rate that surpasses that of the global financial crisis. People are becoming increasingly desperate.
On Saturday, thousands of desperate people converged on central Melbourne to raise these problems with their elected representatives. Instead of being heard by those paid to listen to their concerns, they were met with a fusillade of rubber bullets and tear gas from those once paid to uphold their rights. Once again, a group of hard-working, honest Australians, beset with punitive regulations and fines, and having no effective voice to government, have raised the Southern Cross as a distress beacon. Our governments may have lost sight of the spirit of Eureka, but the people have not.
Gabriel Buckley is chief operating officer of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.